DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Jeff Gordon kept looking for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his rearview mirror. When he finally saw him, “I thought it was over, done,” Gordon said.
As it turned out, Earnhardt found just enough speed to scare Gordon, not to beat him.
Gordon grabbed the lead from Earnhardt three laps from the scheduled end, then held off Kurt Busch and Earnhardt in extra laps Sunday to become only the fifth driver to win three Daytonas.
It was one of the wildest finishes in the 47-year history of NASCAR’s biggest race. There were four lead changes in the last nine laps and two crashes involving a total of 17 cars in the last 20 laps.
Earnhardt, the defending champion, came from 30th with less than 100 miles to go to grab a late lead, only to see Gordon pass him seconds before a caution flag waved on the 198th of the scheduled 200 laps.
The race went three extra laps to finish under a green flag, and Gordon hung on to beat Busch by two car lengths.
“Oh, my goodness, what an amazing day,” a jubilant Gordon said. “Three, baby!”
Gordon, a four-time NASCAR champion, joins Richard Petty (7), Cale Yarborough (4) and Bobby Allison (3) and Dale Jarrett (3) with three or more Daytona victories.
Gordon first won it in 1997 and again in 1999.
“This one’s sweeter than the other two,” he said. “It was an amazing finish.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick, who lost his son, brother, two nieces and several key team officials among 10 people killed last October when a company plane crashed, was in Victory Lane with Gordon.
The winner dedicated the victory to the families of those killed in a crash.
“You know they’re looking down smiling. It doesn’t get any better than that,” he said.
Tony Stewart dominated the race for a second straight year, leading 107 laps, and was well on the way to his first 500 win before a rash of late caution flags set up the dramatic ending.
Earnhardt, who struggled with handling through most of the race and had not led a lap, was second, hugging Stewart’s rear bumper, when he suddenly dove to the outside, just in front of Gordon and charged past the leader to grab the top spot on the 197th lap.
“I was real, real happy,” Earnhardt said. “I’m telling you, man, the car was way, way off. It was hard. It was amazing the difference between the car (at the end) and maybe 50 laps before then. I mean, it was really fast.”
When Earnhardt charged to the lead, Gordon thought the race was over.
“When the cautions came out, I would look in my mirror or look on the board to see how far back he was,” Gordon said. “I thought maybe Junior was having engine problems or handling problems. Then he flipped a switch there at the end. I was like, ‘Oh, here he is.’ “
“I didn’t even think we could get up beside him, let alone pass him.”
Gordon did finally pull alongside Earnhardt and nosed ahead just moments before the 11th yellow flag of the race froze the field.
On the restart on lap 202, Busch, the defending Nextel Cup champion, drove his Ford past Earnhardt on the outside but couldn’t get close enough to Gordon for a real challenge as Earnhardt battled to hold off Jimmie Johnson for third.
“I wanted to take Gordon on the outside, but nobody would have went with us,” Busch said. “I had to follow him because there’s only so much you can do if you don’t have anybody behind you.”
Stewart, who pushed his buddy Earnhardt to victory a year ago, wound up seventh this time. But the 2002 series champion was upbeat.
“I think we ran about as good a race as we possibly could have run,” Stewart said. “At least we had a car that was good enough to lead laps. We got a good start to the season. I’m ready to go.”
Behind the three leaders, things got really wild, with three- and four-wide racing and cars banging and bumping off each other to the finish.
Among those bouncing off each other on the last lap were Stewart and Johnson, who wound up fifth. Stewart even gave Johnson’s car a parting bump on the cooldown lap, infuriating Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus.
The two drivers were summoned to the NASCAR office immediately after the race, but they came out together, smiling.
“Jimmie and I are really good friends and this isn’t something that is going to linger. It’s over with,” Stewart said. “NASCAR just wanted to make sure there wasn’t anything big happening out of it.”
Scott Riggs finished fourth, followed by Johnson and Mark Martin in his last Daytona 500. Rusty Wallace, also in his finale, was 10th.
Unlike other races at Daytona since NASCAR began requiring the horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates to slow the cars, most of the race was run with the field stretched out around the 2 1/2 -mile banked oval.
The Monte Carlos of Stewart, Gordon and two-time Daytona winner Michael Waltrip, Earnhardt’s teammate, led all but 25 laps and spent much of the day in single file. Waltrip wasn’t around at the end because of an engine failure.
Things began heating up on lap 183 when Greg Biffle and Riggs bumped in the middle of a pack and ignited a nine-car crash that sent Scott Wimmer’s car barrel-rolling and then spinning several times on its nose. Wimmer was not injured.
The race restarted on lap 188, but several cars banged together before even passing the flagstand, sparking an eight-car crash on the main straightaway.
NASCAR managed to get that mess cleared in time for a restart on lap 196, but there was yet another caution waving on lap 198 because of debris on the track.
In a nearly identical situation last spring at Talladega, a heavily partisan crowd angrily threw beer and soda cans and seat cushions onto the track after NASCAR said Gordon was ahead of Earnhardt when the caution came out near the end of the race. Gordon went on to win that race under caution.
That reaction prompted new NASCAR chairman Brian France to change the rule and allow a two-lap sprint for the win when a caution comes out before the final scheduled lap.
The victory was the 70th for Gordon, who barely missed his fifth series title last year when he finished just 16 points behind Busch and eight behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson in the closest points race in NASCAR history.
Gordon averaged 135.173 mph, winning $1,474,466 from the record purse of $17 million.
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